Big Data Requires Big Compassion

A friend reminded me of the site Spurious Correlations, which shows absurd “relationships” between data that couldn’t possibly be related– though it’s fun to think that it is.

Number people who drowned by falling into a swimming-pool correlates with Number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in Nicolas Cage is KILLING PEOPLE with his acting!

To me this illuminates an interesting byproduct of the explosion in data– there used to be more things that simply couldn’t be known because nobody had the interest to capture, quantify, and correlate it all. There have traditionally been many unknowns involved in teaching students– was I unclear or were they off task? How much did they study? What didn’t they understand? Was a test question unclear? Modern technology can shed light on many areas of the learning process that were once stubbornly unknowable.

In the LMS, you can go beyond seeing how well a student did on a test — you can see how much time they took, which pages of the reading they accessed, how many times they attempted the practice test, how they scored with the classroom response clickers, and on and on and on. So many more of our little activities are brought to light that once were unknowable.

Similarly, we are quickly adopting apps that share our personal fitness statistics, our location movements, our lists of friends, our moment-to-moment observations and our financial transactions. Many of the things that were unknowable about all of us are quickly being captured, measured, and shared with little involvement from us.

I believe this radical expansion of what can be known about us needs to be accompanied by a radical expansion in compassion. Traditionally humans have passed snap judgments on one another based on very little information, and now we are awash in a sea of data! There is a persistent habit of people to change their opinion of someone else after learning a troubling fact about them– that they’re less honest, competent, caring, or admirable than you originally thought. Big data technology makes it more likely that others will find unflattering information about us, and it matters a lot what they do with that information. Certainly anyone looking for some dirt on me could find a questionable joke or photo I posted online as evidence of my wickedness. I can only hope they would take a holistic view until they found evidence of my goodness as well.

When I saw the first robot traffic cameras, I realized that they could catch every instance of people running red lights, while human police could only catch the ones they were there to see. I imagined a future in which every little crime could be sensed and ticketed — breaking the speed limit, littering, drinking underage, etc.– to an extent where almost everyone would be guilty of some crime at some point in their lives. Would we prosecute every “criminal” now? Or would we need to find a new level of permissiveness, to excuse some transgressions even when we have evidence of a crime?

In education (as in the wider society) we are generating more data than ever before, and this is data that can be used to help students or hurt them, depending on how it’s used. I now can see that my low performing students spent less time reading and didn’t fill out the study guide, but I now have to make a wise decision about what to do with that information. Do I just call them lazy and flunk them or do I give them more targeted one-on-one support? The answer to that question makes a huge difference in their educational outcomes.

We can see how any data can be correlated to produce nonsensical conculsions. To me that’s a great reminder of why we need learn to see each other in the numbers.

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